MLAs took part in an innovative scheme yesterday in which they experienced life at Stormont as blind people would.
Junior Ministers Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann participated in the Guide Dogs NI ‘Walk a Mile in our Shoes’ event in which they wore blindfolds while being guided through a short route, crossing roads and negotiating steps and obstacles. Pupils from Lagan College, Methodist College and Aquinas Grammar helped guide the junior ministers through the course.
Mr Bell said: “I have known a friend of my mum’s, Elizabeth, for 35 years and have the utmost respect for her. She is blind and would come to our house often on Sundays and read her Bible in Braille. For a young person in primary three to see that is quite inspirational.
“I have also known Janet Gray from Lisburn, who is blind but has won every water-skiing medal going. She was involved in a very serious water-skiing accident some years ago and broke a number of bones, but she vowed to come back and win all her medals back again, which is just what she did. For me the accomplishments of people like that are inspirational.”
Mr Bell was blindfolded yesterday and guided around Stormont by a 17-year-old girl from Aquina Grammar School.
“I found it quite difficult,” he said. “She led me down the steps to the statue of Carson and I found walking down the gradient terribly disorientating.
“I would not say I was frightened but I had a heightened sense of risk and awareness and I got a new sense of awareness of how obstacles like advertising signs, traffic cones and wheelbarrows can cause major problems for blind people on footpaths.
“I think one lesson we can take away from this is that everyone can help keeping walking surfaces clear for blind and partially-sighted people.”
Ms McCann said: “This event has provided a very practical experience of some of the many issues faced on a daily basis by blind and partially-sighted people. Tasks that many of us take for granted like crossing the road become a challenge. I would like to thank Guide Dogs NI for organising this event and our young ‘sighted guides’ who helped us negotiate the course.”
The junior ministers launched a consultation on a draft disability strategy on April 25 which ended on August 15. The draft strategy identifies key strands of work which aim to tackle the inequalities that people with all types of disabilities currently experience.